Artemisia Gentileschi – Italian Baroque Painter (1593-1653?)
Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of the well-known and talented painter Orazio Gentileschi. From a young age Artemisia would study painting alongside with her brothers in their father’s studio. When Gentileschi was rejected from several art academies – it was nearly impossible at the time for a woman to gain entry – she then continued her artistic training under guidance of her father’s friend, the infamous Agostino Tassi.
In 1612 Tassi raped the young Gentileschi, with the assistance of another man, during one of these private lessons in perspective. In 17th century Italy the act of rape was considered an offense against the woman’s father or husband, not a crime against the woman. The woman was often seen as being responsible for what happened to her. If the victim was unmarried then everything could possibly be forgiven only if the rapist would agree to marry his victim. Originally Tassi had planned to marry Gentileschi, thus preserving her honor in the eyes of society, and because of this promise he would continue to demand sexual favors from her; but in the end Tassi chose not to marry her.
Tassi’s unwillingness to marry the young Gentileschi would have ruined her reputation in society. Regardless of how Gentileschi lost her virginity, her peers would always consider her a “ruined” woman. Orazio Gentileschi then proceeded to officially accuse Tassi of rape and the theft of a painting.
The trial was seven months long, public and very traumatic for Artemisia Gentileschi. In the early 17th century it was custom for the court to torture victims of rape with thumbscrews and other means to ensure that they were telling the truth – it was commonly believed that women were natural and persistent liars, often a willing man would have to step in and speak for a woman in court. The court decided that Tassi was guilty of rape, theft of a painting and with possibly killing his wife who had long disappeared. He was sentenced to a single year in prison and never served a day of it.
Gentileschi would go on to marry another painter and she had a very successful career in both the city of Florence and Naples. She was the first woman allowed entrance into the Academy of Design and would often be commissioned by the royal court and De Medici family. Gentileschi would befriend many notable artists of her time from Michelangelo the Young to Sofonisba Anguissola, another famed woman artist; and would travel around Europe as her popularity grew. It is unclear on exactly when Gentileschi passed away. All that is known is the she died sometime around 1656 in Naples possibly due to a plague.
Gentileschi’s experiences have made her a person of interest in the 20th century with art historians and feminist scholars alike. It is commonly believed that Gentileschi used her personal life to influence her choice of subjects and themes in her work.
Prior to the rape and the trial Artemisia Gentileschi painted ‘Suzanna and the Elders’, one of her most famous and earliest known works. The image of Suzanna and the elders was a popular biblical story for artists, depicting creepy old men lusting for the young and tormented Suzanna. In Gentileschi’s version of the story the focused is the actual torment of Suzanna. Gentileschi captured the anguish and fear felt by Suzanna so perfectly that scholars have theorized that Gentileschi chose to express her own exhausted experiences of being harassed by men, or specifically Tassi, through her image of Suzanna.
After the trial ended Gentileschi began painting images that depicted stronger less timid women like ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ several times. Instead of a woman as a victim of unsolicited attention, she would paint women who took charge and revenge against men who tormented their people. Her treatment of the female form, heavily influenced by Caravaggio, was more natural and expressive of emotion in comparison to the stylized depictions painted by her father and other male contemporaries. Looking at Gentileschi’s Judith it is easy to see the strength and the determination in her facial expression and body language as Holofernes struggles for his life against the overpowering Judith, who is not looking too queasy about her gory task. This take on Judith was original in a time when women were seen as anything but strong.
Unfortunately, despite her success during her own lifetime, history almost completely erased Artemisia Gentileschi from the books – her life was not typical for a woman and though she was highly respected and protected by her patrons for her talent she still received plenty of disdain from shortsighted peers. Like many women artists of her time, her name and fame would fade from memory, and her work would be credited to other male artists, specifically her father. It was the effort of feminist scholars and dedicated art historians that helped in reaccrediting Gentileschi body of work back to her.